Happy 2012. After writing a blog series outlining some of the major ed-tech trends of 2011 as well as a few obligatory posts with predictions for the new year, I figured I’d be off to the races, energized about my work as an education technology writer, excited for the potential for better teaching and learning opportunities facilitated by technology. But so far — and yes, I realize it’s only January 4 — it doesn’t feel like a terribly happy new year to me. There have been a string of ed-tech-related news stories over the last 4 days that have left me frustrated, if not depressed, about the year ahead.
1. CodeYear: A “learn to code” New Year’s resolution is a great idea. But as I’ve ranted on my own blog, I have some concerns over Codecademy, the startup behind the Code Year campaign, and its promise that it’s the “easiest way to learn to code.” Despite myself and others questioning Codecademy’s pedagogy, the tech press adores this new company. As such, story after story after story has already been written this year about its marketing campaign. Many of the most recent ones have touted the number of sign-ups for Code Year. My frustration: we are confusing enrollment in an email newsletter with educational outcomes. To quote former President George W. Bush, when it comes to the tech press, “Rarely is the question asked, ‘Is our children learning?’”
2. CourseKit: The alternative LMS Coursekit announced that it’s raised $5 million in funding. The startup earned buzz early in 2010 when it raised $1 million in investment and its trio of founders then dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania to pursue their business idea full-time. Add another $5 million on top of that now and it’s clear investors are interested in learning management systems — well, ones not named “Blackboard,” at least. But as I’ve written elsewhere (here and here), this is a crowded market, although CourseKit is aiming at professors as its customers, not institutions, offering a tool that’s more social and Web-oriented. My fear: I worry about education startups that have a lot of investors but no clear business model. As Douglas Rushkoff argues, if you’re not paying for the product, chances are you are the product.
3. Apple and iTextbooks?: Okay, this one is from the technology rumor mill, but word on the street is that Apple is poised to make a major announcement this month about textbooks and iTunes U. It’s not terribly surprising as the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs indicated that textbooks was the next industry that Apple — or Jobs at least — planned to “disrupt.” But having read the biography, I am not sure I’d label the plans (at least as described therein) terribly disruptive. And as Phil Hill has noted here, all of the major educational publishers are supporters of SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, a proposed piece of legislation that would crack down on copyright infringers and would also (as some technologists have argued) “break the Internet.” My concern: While it’s silly to get too upset about rumors and speculation at this time, I do wonder what Apple and textbook publishers could be scheming in terms of DRM-protected, walled gardens and how such plans might impact the open Web and OER.
4. Vi Hart joins Khan Academy: “Mathemusician” Vi Hart announced yesterday that she’s joining the faculty of Khan Academy. Hart’s YouTube videos are incredibly popular — her latest, about Fibonacci sequences, that she posted on December 21 already has well over 200,000 views, for example. “Vi Hart is awesome!” has been the response to a lot of folks about the news (and indeed, she is). So why do I find this troubling? In part, I think it’s connected to my long-standing concerns about pedagogy and the rote sort of teaching that Khan Academy videos offer. Hart’s math videos have long stood as a brilliantly creative alternative, ones that demonstrate the beauty of math and the joy of a mathematician. I worry how Hart will fit into Khan Academy (she says that she has free license there — that is good, of course). After all, Khan Academy isn’t just about video lessons — it’s about an exercise drill and adaptive learning platform. Does Hart fit in there? If so, how? My hesitation: is this an example perhaps of how the massive amount of funding and influence that Khan Academy has accrued over the last year or so may be wielded to co-opt others who may well offer more “disruptive” ways of thinking about teaching and learning (and math)?
This is the point, of course, where readers are free to dismiss me as as critical if not curmudgeonly. Readers are also free to hum along with The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” — something I confess that I’d frequently do years ago when my son was younger and he’d stomp his feet and pout when things weren’t going his way. It’s also the point where entrepreneurs (particularly those mentioned above) vow to never ever speak to me again, because I’m being pretty dour about what is — particularly in the case of CourseKit and Codecademy — great news for their companies.
Yes, perhaps I am being overly negative and ridiculously pessimistic about how any or all of these news items stand as harbingers of “the bad” and not “the good” that’s still to come this year.
Perhaps too these news items are really just “more of the same.” It’s not as though suddenly investors, educators, entrepreneurs, students, publishers and engineers have divergent interests or motivations. It’s not particularly new or newsworthy that much of the drive for technology in education actually supports the institutional and financial structures that we have in place rather than transforming or (the verb du jour) disrupting them.
I do wonder (and worry) about how best to change the conversation we have about technology and education — what matters, to whom, and why. And in doing so, I admit, I’m already exhausted just four days in to a new year.